A maverick and all-around artist of his craft, Robert De Niro is well known for his method acting antics, putting other cast and crew members to the test in films such as Cape Fear and Taxi Driver from director Martin Scorsese. It was in Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, however, that the actor would make his most daring decision, starring in the film alongside Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep.
Prominently anti-war in its stance, The Deer Hunter would take home Best Picture and Best Director at the 1979 Academy Awards, but will forever be remembered for its iconic and deeply disturbing Russian roulette scene.
Remaining one of cinema’s most memorable scenes throughout the late 20th century, The Deer Hunter had a profound effect on the American population, triggering a wake-up call to sceptics across the nation. An iconic scene of American cinema, it also shocked cinephiles across the world, including none other than Jodie Foster, who marks the scene as a life-changing moment for her.
Speaking in an interview with the American Film Institute, Jodie Foster explains the power behind the scene, noting: “As each one passes the gun to the other they have to anticipate that they’re gonna watch their best friend’s head blow off, with each click of the gun their bond is cemented even more”.
The scene itself was a gruelling one to shoot too, with Michael Cimino choosing to use real rats and mosquitoes to improve the set’s authenticity. In addition, the local Thai actor Somsak Sengvilai, who was brought in to play a Vietnamese soldier, was asked to surprise Christopher Walken’s character by slapping him, making the American actor’s reaction all the more genuine.
However, in one of Robert De Niro’s most daring requests, he also asked if a live cartridge could be loaded into the revolver used in the Russian roulette scene to heighten the intensity of the dramatic moment. De Niro’s co-star John Cazale agreed to the request though understandably demanded to obsessively check the gun before each and every take to ensure the live round wasn’t next in the chamber.
Recalling his time working on the influential war film, Robert De Niro told GQ: “I liked the story and the dialogue. I just thought it was a terrific script. It was so simple and it seemed so real to me. The characters spoke to me. I liked that they didn’t say much, that there wasn’t anything that was condescending or patronising toward them”.
Included on every list of the best Vietnam war films ever made, The Deer Hunter joins Apocalypse Now from Francis Ford Coppola and Platoon from Oliver Stone among the finest films of the genre.